Go Away or I Shall Replace You with a Very Small Shell Script

"Think about it: the computers work great until the users come in and start fucking everything up. I don't hate computers, I hate users."

This is a rant borne out of the recent feeling that I hate everyone and wish they would all just leave me the fuck alone. I don't think there is a SysAdmin alive who has not felt this way at least once in his life. This one's for you.

Until recently I naively believed that as time progressed, and as new generations came up in the information age, a familiarity with computers would breed a more tech-saavy user. Everyone's always talking about how kids who grew up in this digital age of ours are so much better with computers than adults who had to learn about them as, well, adults. This is total shit. I fall into the latter camp — I started learning about computers in earnest in 1997 — whereas most of the students I teach are in the former — they grew up with computers in their schools and homes and have used them all their lives. And I've assumed, again naively, that I'd see progressively tech-saavy users with each successive class of students. The dream was that the students of the future would have far fewer technical problems, and be far more self-reliant when it came to troubleshooting said problems. Unfortunately, by and large, the reverse seems to be true: students seem more helpless — and at the same time more demanding — than ever before.

There's an episode of Star Trek involving an ancient race of beings who rely heavily on a technology which they've completely lost the ability to understand. This technology is, essentially, a computer with the ability and intelligence enough to run their planet — and itself — for centuries without human intervention. After generations of relying on this computer, the people forget how it works, and when it finally breaks down — see, they always break down eventually — it begins emitting such powerful radiation that it renders the population sterile. But they're at a loss as to how to go about fixing it. It's quite a bind. Ultimately, they end up kidnapping a bunch of kids before finally getting the Enterprise engineer to fix their system. Or, I should say, to show them how to fix it.

I think what may be going on today is similar. I think today's computer users are are like those people in the Star Trek episode. They've completely lost touch with a technology upon which they're reliant. The new generation of student is actually less tech-saavy because, rather than seeing the computer as a tool that he must learn and understand in order to use properly, he sees it as some sort of birthright and as something that should, as they say, "just work."

This is not completely the wrong attitude. Computers, to a certain extent, should "just work." But I think the whole reason we put quotations around that phrase is because we SysAdmins all know, deep down inside, that that idea is, to a certain extent, a pipe dream. And doubly so for the art student range of users who have a tendency to use computers in ways in which they were not originally intended. Computers are extremely complex mixtures of hardware and software interacting with users on behalf of their desires, needs and expectations. When they break or even fail to function in certain ways, I hardly find it surprising. It is, quite frankly, par for the course. It's the reason I have a job.

But these days people seem to think my job is to fix any and every computer problem that might occur, both in the lab and outside of it. Many users refuse to undertake any troubleshooting steps themselves and come immediately to me for help, when often a simple reboot will solve their problem. I actually had a student contemptuously ask me why he should have to reboot the computer, as if it were ridiculous that A) there was a problem in the first place, and B) he should have to do anything about it himself. There is a sense of entitlement and an intellectual laziness that seems pervasive lately among end-users. It's all I can do to get users to Google a question they have or check the help files before coming to me for help with a problem. Consequently, a far-too-sizable chunk of my time is spent answering questions to which the answers are readily available online or right there on the computer. Or worse, looking up the answers to those questions for users who are too lazy or arrogant to do it themselves. It's infuriating.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
-Lao Tzu

When I was in school I spent a great deal of time and effort troubleshooting my personal computer, and thereby learning about computers and how they work. In the process I also learned how to find information I needed on a given topic or problem. We didn't have a class in this. I am completely self-taught. I taught myself how to fish. And I've made a career out of it. Where I work there is a class on systems. It's required. But many students object to this requirement and resent having to take this class. Not only do they refuse to learn to fish, they seem to expect someone else to catch, gut, cook, cut and hand-feed them the fish. And when it doesn't taste just so, they spit it back in your face.

I believe in understanding the tools of your craft. The great Renaissance painters understood the chemical interactions of pigments in oil. They knew how to mix primer and rabbit skin glue, and how to construct and stretch canvas. These days we have paint in tubes and pre-stretched canvas, but any painter worth his salt still has a fundamental understanding of the chemicals in paint and the best way to go about making a stretcher. Computer art students would do well to follow this model. And, quite frankly, they should do so happily. They should be in love with their tools. If they're not, maybe they should find another medium. 'Cause otherwise they're going to end up kidnapping children. And that just ain't right.